Joan Micklin Silver was known as a pioneer of independent and women-helmed cinema with work like Hester Street and Crossing Delancey.
Joan Micklin Silver, who forged a path for female directors and independent filmmakers with movies including Hester Street and Crossing Delancey, has died. She was 85.
Silver died from vascular dementia Thursday at her home in New York, her daughter Claudia Silver told The Associated Press. She used a combination of talent, fortitude and luck to create 1975’s Hester Street, her first feature, released when she was 40 years old.
“Joan Micklin Silver was one of the most courageous artists I ever knew,” Carol Kane, who was nominated for a best actress Academy Award for her role in Hester Street, said in a statement to the AP. “She knew she could prevail at a time when women were not being taken seriously as film directors.”
A black-and-white period piece partly in Yiddish about a family of Jewish immigrants attempting to assimilate in New York, the film became an unlikely triumph after Silver fought to make it. Kane would get her Oscar nomination for playing a woman attempting to make herself a New World wife to please her husband.
“When I read the script of Hester Street, it was so beautifully written that I had the sensation that I was watching the movie as I read it,” Kane said. Silver would eventually move on to directing studio films in a strained relationship with Hollywood.
Her biggest commercial success would come with Crossing Delancey, a 1988 romantic comedy starring Amy Irving as a New York bookstore employee torn between two men. It was set nearly a century later than Hester Street but took place in the same neighborhood and explored similar themes of Judaism and romance amid shifting cultures.
Born Joan Micklin in Omaha, Nebraska, in 1935, she went to college at Sarah Lawrence in Bronxville, New York. In 1956, the year she graduated, she married Raphael Silver, who would become a real estate developer and a producer of her films.
The two lived in Cleveland for the first 11 years of their marriage and had three daughters while Joan Micklin Silver wrote plays for community theater. In 1967 they moved to New York, where she wrote scenarios for an educational film company and scripts for films.
When scripts she sold either were not produced or were changed beyond recognition, she realised she would have to direct them herself to tell the stories she wanted.
“I had always wanted to be a director,” Silver said in a 1983 German documentary on her films. “It seemed that I shouldn’t postpone it any longer.”
She set out to make Hester Street, fighting through a constant lack of funding and other obstacles, helped by a little luck. The crew at one point prepped an 1896 street for a week’s worth of shooting, and she would later say that one rainstorm would mean the end of the film. It stayed dry.
But the film’s success did not mean chances to direct bigger pictures immediately emerged.
“I was hardly deluged with offers from Hollywood,” Silver said in the German documentary. “People have subsequently said to me if any man had made ‘Hester Street’ he would have had a three-picture deal from Paramount or Warners.”
Her next feature would be another indie, 1977’s Between the Lines, starring John Heard, Lindsay Crouse and Jeff Goldblum, about an alt-weekly newspaper undergoing a big-business buyout.
She finally made her first studio movie with 1979’s Chilly Scenes of Winter, originally released as Head over Heels. The film was not well-received, and she directed a pair of films for television before returning to the big screen with Crossing Delancey, which would go on to make more than 100 million USD — more than 200 million USD in current dollars.
Los Angeles Times film writer Mark Olsen tweeted Thursday that Crossing Delancey may just be “a perfect movie.” “It’s certainly an ideal rom-com — warm, empathetic, heartfelt and with a distinct sense of place,” he wrote.
Silver would go on to direct seven features in all, though not nearly as many as she might have. Kane said, “We have all been deprived of seeing so many many other great movies that Joan was ready and prepared to give us.”
Raphael Silver died in 2013. Joan Micklin Silver is survived by daughters Claudia, Marisa and Dina Silver, sister Renee, and five grandchildren.
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